Thursday, April 2, 2009

Angry God, Rueful God: A Homily

My family's seder plate

After the Matzah is purchased in a case of crumbly blandness, the gefillte fish, the grated horseradish ruby and pearl in their beveled glass bottles (the Reform Pesach is largely store-bought, although I know the story of my Great Uncle Sidney, weeping over the horseradish root and the grater, the grey fumes intense), the Haggadot dusted off, the ceremonial silver polished, the shankbone procured, the egg roasted, after all this and the metaphorical sweeping of the leavened crumbs, comes the Seder. Perhaps the loveliest moment in the Jewish year.

The Passover Seder, and its story book, the Haggadah, is full of drama and thrill, very potent it is:

...and this very Haggadah whispers,
"Join're welcome belong,
Among my pages full of smoke and blood,
Among the great and ancient tales I tell."

But no moment more potent, more tangibly fraught, than the reading of the ten plagues on Egypt.

The Haggadah tells the story of the Hebrews' freedom from slavery, and of the Exodus from Egypt. To accomplish this, God stepped in and visited these plagues, each one more horrifying and vivid than the next, on the Egyptians:

Yet, when we recite them during the reading of the Haggadah, it is done with a measure of understanding and guilt.  For God, although he accomplishes these dark and violent miracles, at the same time chastizes the Hebrews for heedless, thoughtless celebration of the vanquishing of Egypt.  In what is for me the most interesting passage in the Passover story, we are reminded that deliverance came at great cost:

"Our rabbis taught: when the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation.  God silenced them and said, 'My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?'"

So as we recite the horrible plagues, we dip our fingers in our brimful ceremonial wine cups, and drop single drops of wine on our plates, ten drops, one for each plague, that as our cup is lessened, we might be mindful of the cost of our freedom.

It is an interesting lesson: God acted on our behalf, but it is almost as if he did so with a regretful humanity; he does not allow us to celebrate the method, only the result.  Brutality was met with brutality, as sometimes it must be, but there is a lesson: we ourselves are less for having been party to it.  And to take it shockingly far, God is less for having accomplished it.  It's a powerful conundrum, and one that I think I understood at least half-way, when as a child I dipped my tiny pinky in the grape juice, ten times, intoning the grim singsong litany of plague, the voices of those at the table also tense and grim, the wine gathering at the center of our Passover china--ten drops, ten plagues, a pool of wine, or was it blood?

Those moments informed my entire belief system as an adult. That our history, both real and liturgical, is full of suffering, redemption, battle, regret. That God, though all-powerful, shares our humanity. That the God of the Jews could be both
righteous and remorseful, set an impossible task with consequence both horrible and great. That he could be angry at us, and forgive us, that we could be angry with Him and forgive him. Ten drops, two minutes each year, year after year, to examine the implications of a complex God and His complex actions. This freedom to know God as both perfect and imperfect is what has kept Him alive inside me.


just bob said...


What a wonderful portrayal of the Passover Seder. I had no idea that there was so much symbolism and reflection involved with it. For someone who has never been a part of one, I now understand it a great deal from your description.

Sarah said...

Faith is such a complex battlefield. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insight on the seder. Lately, as I find myself navigating the course of finding a deeper relationship of trust in God, I find passages like this all the more thought provoking and inspiring.

May you and the rest of your family be blessed during this season.

Leah said...

Thanks Bob! If you ever get a chance to attend one, a seder is really fun.

Sarah--that is really good to hear! A fallible, human-ish God is a pretty hardcore idea, but I think it is much more relatable. And I do believe it's one way of interpreting the Old Testament! Anyway, I hope your quest is interesting and fulfilling! I'll be curious to know where it takes you...

and best wishes to you during this season!

Michael Rawluk said...

I know nothing about religion but I do know that horseradish is best cooked outdoors :-)

Dakota Bear said...

Thank for the lesson of the Passover Seder.

willow said...

Fascinating post, Leah. Your family's Seder plate is beautiful.

Auntie, aka cagny said...

Thank you for teaching me more about the Seder.
And as Michael commented, horseradish is tasty, esp. in a BBQ sauce.
mmmmmm now my mouth is watering!

Brian Miller said...

wow. powerful. had the opportunity to take seder a few years back with some friends. was an interesting and moving experience.

MJ said...

Blight, lice and locusts.

I hate it when that happens.

Ronda Laveen said...

Oh, Leah. This is beautiful and powerful. There is much history and teaching here. I enjoyed learning these lessons at an even deeper level because of your time.

With great power, comes great responsibility. I've never considered that God was less for what he did. But it is true. He made a decision of necessity and paid the price.

Mrsupole said...

The Seder plate is beautiful, and the whole ceremony is fascinating. I have never been to one, even though my maternal grandmother was Jewish, she was not practicing it anymore and had converted to a Christian. So it is very interesting to me to read about something my ancestors had done, through your insight. Very nice thoughts about God too.

Thank you so much for sharing this experience with us. It was a wonderful thing to do.

God bless.

Marianna said...

This is why I love Theme Thursday. Always a chance to come across a remarkable yours lol

great take on the theme. Thank you for sharing with us!

Goodnight (midnight in Greece got to sleep)

Take care
peace and love

Emerson Marks said...

Horrible plagues? I'm sorry to hear you've had to endure a visit to Portsmouth. You'd be better off staying in Albania during the 1970's.

lettuce said...

I like what you say about god
and the way you write too

Leah said...

Michael--and grated while wearing a gas mask!!!

Dakota Bear--you're welcome and glad you stopped in!

Willow--thank you! And I love that plate too--but it's hell and a handbasket to shine with the silver polish, all those nooks and crannies!

Auntie--I adore horseradish bbq sauce.

Brian--thanks, and I'm glad you got to sit through a seder! They really are an experience worth having, regardless of one's background.

MJ--it's the frogs, darkness, and boils that worry me more.

Leah said...

Ronda--thank you very much for your comment! It means a lot to me.

Mrsupole--as I said to Bob, you should at least once sit through a seder if you can! It's a great experience. And might I add, since Judaism is matrilineal, and your maternal grandmother was Jewish, you my dear are officially considered a Jew! lol

Marianna--thanks so much for the compliment! And hope you have a good night's sleep!

EM--in fact, I needn't go as far afield as Portsmouth--some parts of Brooklyn seem infested!!!

Lettuce--thank you very much.

Suzanne said...

I haven't read another comment, but will go back. I haven't because I didn't want anyone to influence this comment.

I love you very, very much. You would have been an amazing Rabi. I believe that with all my heart. I have come to know and love you over almost two years and I'm grateful. I am darling. You have shown mercy when you shouldn't and you've blessed my life. I don't know why this post is making me cry, but it is. I know you. I know the love that pours from your veins. I know how funny you can be. How twisted! I know what you love. What you hate. I know who you are to the best of my ability. I am so grateful you're my friend. You know me, I want to delete the crap out of this thing, but I won't because I want you to know that I adore you and that you being in my life matters a whole hell of a lot.

With so much love,

Candie Bracci said...

Just fascinating
great post Leah

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your beautiful post. We're just cats, so we didn't know about the Seder. And yes, you can have some of our fish treats:)

Anonymous said...

Leah, the symbols of faith and liturgical traditions leave such a powerful imprint on us from a young age. You describe this perfectly. From what you write I imagine that celebration of Seder (and other festivals) must become quite emotional moments as the years go by and memories of previous celebrations are awakened.

As to the theology- I find the idea of an angry God very scary.

Baino said...

Leah I loved this. I find it all very mystical and exciting. (Not bad for an athiest)

I actually had the chance to participate in Passover celebration at a Jewish Saturday school at our Great Synagogue some years ago . . the food was .. interesting . . but the ritual quite lovely. Very different to the Catholic 'stations of the Cross' and all that "Passion" business.
Great post!

The Idle Devil said...

I never knew this side to the story. Thank you for enlightening me and bringing forth the complexities of God's ways.

Megan said...

I've been thinking about this post off and on all day. It's quite powerful, Leah.

You continue to amaze and awe me.

Jimmy Bastard said...

Just when I think I have finally unravelled the many layers that is Leah, out pops this delightful piece.

The deepness of the reflection that must have gone into each carefully chosen word is very evident.

Perfection personified.

kylie said...

i can get the dichotomies of a complex God but perfect & imperfect is a direct contradiction of all i have learned.
can God still be God if He is imperfect?
i'll have to think on that

i wish the whole God thing was easier :)

savannah said...

very simply, sugar, i like the way you think! one day we'll sit down over a cuppa and chat, ok? xoxoxo

Old Knudsen said...

I am an expert in God as I am older than dirt, in fact I gave God some dirt to make the first human out of.

God is big, impersonal and limited by the thoughts and writings of man.

God does have managers though who are powerful beings but as human as we are. Little facets of God if you will but then again we all are.

The God of love make over has always sounded something like Cher or Madonna would do.

I have never underestimated yer layers of deep reflection as it has always been quite evident.

God also inflicted hemorrhoids too, that with childbirth pains add sick sense of humour, bitter and not very pro-active to yer title.

Leah said...

Suzy--I treasure this comment. I'm so glad you didn't take it down. xo

Leah said...

Candie--I'm glad you found it interesting!

Tristan and Crikey--You are very generous kitties for sharing your delicious treats.

Cinnamon--you're so right; the repetition of the traditions makes them very emotional and powerful, as you say the memories are awakened--you really understood what I was trying to say, and for that I thank you. Yes, the idea of an angry God is terrifying. I agree. And God is furious for a great deal of the Hebrew Bible...

Baino--I actually find aspects of Catholicism mystical, thrilling, and fascinating. Especially the Passion and Resurrection stories...

Idle Devil--It's a rather more obscure part of the story--I'm glad you found it interesting. I think it is too--complicated, yes, but interesting to grapple with.

Jimmy--thank you. I always worry when I put up a post about God. It's only part of who I am, but it's a big part. I'm just relieved that I didn't seem to alienate anyone. I guess as you say, it's all about layers--is it okay if I'm perfect even though God is not? ; )

Leah said...

Kylie--I think you've hit on a big difference between Judaism and Christianity. Jews question God, constantly and sometimes bitterly. I don't think Christians are really supposed to do that, are they? Maybe I'm wrong. It can be very uncomfortable to have to do all that questioning, though.

savannah--can't wait for the cuppa. We'd have a time of it, we would!

Old Knudsen--I'm not so much into the God of Love idea, and it certainly isn't a Jewish notion (well, obviously not). It's hard to relate to that God, to live up to the expectations. I mean love, sure, but not only love. And yeah, God gave us hemorrhoids and childbirth pangs (usually both together), so it is quite hard to imagine he is rueful, as I hopefully suggested...

kylie said...

i do a lot of questioning God, sometimes bitterly but i always feel guilty. i'm not sure what the theology is. haven't thought about this much.....
but i suspect that the unquestioning thing is a construct of the church rather than a biblical imperative

Kris said...

Old Testament God really did have a chip on his shoulder...

Gabby said...

Beautiful post about the Seder Leah. I've never attended one because I don't know any Jews. It sounds like an incredible ceremony to participate in.
I am Catholic and I was taught that the God of the Jews is the same God of the Christians. I was also taught that God is righteous and remorseful, is slow to anger and slow to respond but does what needs to be done. We are all his children and like most parents He tries his best to care for us, wants the best for all of us and allows us to live our lives. The perfect/imperfect parent.
I was also taught that we can question Him and be angry at him and it's not considered a sin. Anger is one of the seven deadly sins, yes, but it's what you do with that anger that makes it a sin, I believe. It's also Ok to pray and ask for answers and help but you must be willing to accept the answer and help He gives you. It may not be what you want but He gives you what you need. You just need to be open to receive.

Leah said...

Kylie--It's interesting, I don't feel guilty, more just very worried when I do so...God in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) comes across as possessing strong human characteristics and is in that way fallible. The Christian Scriptures add another dimension. And another question: is Jesus fallible? Did you read the book or see the movie of "The Last Temptation of Christ"? I thought it was profound. I know some church groups were extremely uncomfortable with it though.

Leah said...

Kris--the Hebrew God sure is cranky isn't he. The Christian God is kinder and gentler I think.

Leah said...

Gabby--you raise an interesting question actually. Is the Hebrew God the same as the Christian God? I have a lot of thinking to do on this topic. The short answer is that He is and He isn't. Of course, Christians have the belief in Jesus as the Christ, which adds a whole other dimension. But ostensibly Christians and Jews are monotheistic and we all believe in the same God, but it really isn't exactly the same. The Hebrew Bible is just the Old Testament; the Christian Bible is comprised of the Old and New. God seems very different in these two sets of scriptures actually. So maybe it's the same God, but we have two differing ideas of Him, each through the lens of our differing faiths. I'll have to revisit this. It's fascinating. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Leah, very powerful and personal description of the Seder. I can understand it a bit better now. ithank you for that :)

kylie said...

i didnt see or read "the last temptation of Christ"
maybe i should check it's a shame i cant comment there,....

as for whether Christ is fallible, it is fundamental to Christianity that He wasn't. personally, i dont think it would upset me if i suddenly found out that He got stuff wrong, just as the thought that He might not have been born of a virgin doesnt bother me.

only recently my minister asserted that if we can believe in a Jesus who was born of a normal pregnancy our God is too small.
as far as i am concerned, my God is big enough to create a virginal pregnancy but if He didnt He is not diminished.
i'm way off track now and probably being blasphemous or something terrible.........

wish my theology was better :)